The Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami will be the site of the first two Democratic presidential debates next month, and Wayne Messam desperately wants – and needs – to be on that stage.
Messam is the mayor of Miramar in South Florida – the state’s 13th largest city – and is perhaps the least known elected Democrat to announce his candidacy for the White House.
“Help me get to the debate stage. Help me have my voice heard,” Messam told a Tiger Bay Club audience who gathered in Tallahassee last week to hear his first campaign appearance in the capital city.
“Help this mayor to bring a perspective to the debate stage that you will not get from a U.S. senator. Or from a [U.S.] representative. Or perhaps even a former governor of a state from our amazing United States. This mayor’s voice needs to be heard…I will speak truth to power.”
For the debates, organizers will pick a maximum of 20 candidates, over consecutive nights in Miami, but Messam has not yet qualified.
He has two paths to get there: either break one percent approval rating in three polls from pollsters approved by the Democratic National Committee, or get 65,000 unique campaign donors, with at least 200 donors in 20 different states.
Messam did register at 1 percent support in a Fox News Poll taken last month.
The 44 year-old Messam grew up in the South Florida farming community of Belle Glade and went on to attend Florida State University for four years, where he played wide receiver for coach Bobby Bowden and the Seminoles from 1993-1996. After a brief stint in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals, he went on to create his own construction company.
In 2011, he won a city commission seat in Miramar (located halfway between Fort Lauderdale and Miami), and then won an upset victory for mayor in there in 2015. He was reelected to another four-year term for mayor earlier this year.
While he sports an impressive resume, he’s barely known in a race dominated by other Democrats who have been in the spotlight for years, if not decades.
Messam is fully cognizant of the uphill battle he faces. The descendant of a Jamaican immigrants, he says he’s been an underdog his entire life, and has always met the challenge.
“I wasn’t expected to come to Florida State. I wasn’t expected to win a national championship. I was never expected to wear an NFL uniform I wasn’t expected to win a commission seat. I wasn’t expected to be the first black mayor of a diverse community,” he says.
Nevertheless, it’s been a rough start.
He defends the fact that he was dead last among the Democrats in fundraising when first-quarter financials were released last month, saying he had just entered the race. And there have been reports of campaign staffers not being paid.
Messam says he needs to get more exposure from the mainstream media to break through with the public. He’s been to Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Texas so far. The only other mayor in the race, South Bend’s Pete Buttigieg, saw his poll numbers and fundraising soar after his impressive during a CNN town hall event back in March.
“If I get the same coverage or the same exposure as other candidates have been afforded, like having a CNN town hall and having the opportunity to be viewed by millions… I think it will be enough Americans to resonate with to get enough support to give me the staying power to get to the point.”
Messam says that on the campaign trail, he’s frequently asked how he is qualified to be president, since his only governing experience is running Florida’s 13th largest city. He says that’s the wrong question to ask.
“What does Washington experience have to do with meeting the needs of the American people?” he asks in response.
His stance on the issues are similar to most of the other Democrats in the race. His one stand-out take is his position on dealing with student-loan debt in the country. Government statistics show that over 44 million Americans collectively hold nearly $1.5 trillion in student debt, a figure he calls “immoral.”
His solution? Wipe it all out.
“We can forgive this debt as an economic stimulus,” he said. “Our analysis states that $80-$100 billion would go the GDP every year. 1.5 million jobs would be created.”
He’d pay for it by rescinding the 2017 Republican-led tax cuts and imposing a 0.5 percent payroll tax on companies with more than 50 employees. He’d also expand Pell grants.
“If corporations are going to need, and are demanding, an educated and qualified workforce, shouldn’t they have some skin in the game? I think that’s a fair question,” he said.
The first presidential debates will be held on June 26 and June 27 and will be broadcast by NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo. POLITICO reports that the Democratic National Committee will announce which candidates will participate about two weeks before the debates. Politico also reports that, unofficially, 18 Democrats have qualified for the 20 spots so far– which means Messam is still in the mix to make the final cut.